Bill Murray is not a guy most people think of as a role model for happiness.
But at 62, the aging baby boomer has built a thriving career and, based on recent interviews, found personal fulfillment by following his own idiosyncratic path: Murray does only what he wants to do; the hell with anything else.
In Hollywood, it’s common knowledge that Murray is notoriously difficult to pin down. If you want him for a role, good luck reaching him — he doesn't have an agent who handles the screening process. Instead, the hopeful producer or director calls a special 800 number and makes a pitch to Murray's voicemail. Maybe, if the actor is interested, he’ll send word to forward a script.
Most of the time, however, he doesn't answer. Once in a great while, out of the blue, Murray will call directly to express interest. But, as one producer said in an interview a few years back, you never really know until the day you start shooting if he'll be there.
Murray was very much there for Hyde Park on the Hudson, an intimate historical drama in which he affectionately and skillfully portrays a womanizing Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Murray has already been nominated for best actor in the Golden Globe Awards. The movie opened last weekend in four theaters and will be expanding to additional screens in coming weeks.
Hyde Park is set in 1939, with FDR ensconced for the summer at his mother’s estate in rural New York, busily juggling the very various women in his life, including his wife, Eleanor (played by Olivia Williams), secretary Marguerite “Missy” LeHand (Elizabeth Marvel) and a distant cousin, Margaret “Daisy” Suckley (Laura Linney). He is also preparing for a visit by England’s new monarch, George VI (Samuel West), and his wife (Olivia Colman), with the king hoping to get FDR’s assurance that the United States will back Great Britain should the nation go to war with Germany. (The movie can be viewed as a companion piece to the Oscar-winning The King’s Speech — the stuttering British monarch is a major character in both.)
It’s Hyde Park’s contention — a dramatic leap made by screenwriter Richard Nelson for which there is no (ahem!) historical evidence — that FDR’s relationships with both Missy and Daisy were enthusiastically sexual, despite the disability caused by polio that required him to use a wheelchair.
For Murray, his latest star turn is yet another entertaining marker in a career that has never followed a prescribed path and yet is all the stronger and more impressive for it. Compare him with his fellow early Saturday Night Live stars and the differences in the quality of the work and the scope of ambition are daunting.
Murray first came to public attention in a big way in 1977, when he arrived as the self-described “new guy” during the second season of SNL to replace Chevy Chase. Chase, the hit show's breakout star, was moving on to greener pastures in Hollywood. He had already been the subject of an idolatory New York magazine cover story that predicted he could be the next Johnny Carson.
As those with long memories will recall, Chase went on to shine briefly in a series of mostly forgettable comedies and family films (though the National Lampoon Vacation series remains popular), had a disastrously brief run as a late-night TV talk show host in 1993 and most recently departed ignominiously this year from the NBC sitcom Community after feuding with its creator.
Of the other SNL stars from the early years, Gilda Radner died young and John Belushi died even younger. Dan Aykroyd continues to work periodically but has never lived up to his early promise. And Jane Curtin has had successful runs in two sitcoms (Kate & Allie and 3rd Rock From the Sun). Garrett Morris and Laraine Newman keep plugging away in bit parts and doing voice work for animation, with only those over 55 recognizing them as once-shining SNL vets.
It’s been a different story for Murray. After finding early success in such hit comedies as Caddyshack and Ghostbusters, he seems contentedly to have gone his own way. One never senses that he takes a role just to keep himself in front of the public or, as the current buzzspeak goes, build his brand.
In the past two decades, he has often aligned himself with younger or more adventurous directors, including Tim Burton (Ed Wood), Sofia Coppola (Lost in Translation), Jim Jarmusch (Broken Flowers) and, especially, Wes Anderson (Rushmore, The Royal Tenenbaums, Moonrise Kingdom and more). In these films, Murray often plays men suffering from middle-aged melancholia or existential angst. His performances have been both moving and transfiguring and have kept his star shining bright.
The lesson for aging boomers to learn from Murray’s career? Take risks, keep changing and defy expectations. Otherwise, well, you risk ending up like Chevy Chase.